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A major U.S. worry about the tumult in Syria — perhaps the major worry — has been the risk that part of that country’s sizable arsenal of nerve agents and other deadly chemical weapons might fall into the wrong hands amid the chaos of a civil war. That’s why remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta at an afternoon press conference with the Canadian defense minister seem so alarming.

In response to a question about rebel claims to have seized some of that arsenal, Panetta said the intelligence community no longer knows for sure where all of Syria’s chemical weapons are, and that as a result, he is unsure if they have been picked up by elements of the Syrian opposition. The opposition, as we know, includes extremist elements as well as rebels supplied with arms by Saudi Arabia with Western advice and encouragement. In short, the new claims emanating from Syria appear to have caught the intelligence community by surprise.

One of the Syrian weapons is VX, an odorless, tasteless chemical considered the most toxic nerve agent ever created.

Here is the transcript of Panetta’s remarks, as released by the Pentagon on Friday afternoon:

Q: Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you about Syria’s chemical weapons. You have spoken extensively about your broad concern about it. I want to ask you with some specificity this morning. Rebel groups are claiming that they have captured some military sites in Iraq — in Syria — where, in fact, they have found chemical weapons components, capability, whatever it may be, at some of the areas they now control. So do you now believe that rebels have essentially found — do you have concerns that they have found some of Syria’s chemical weapons capability? Do you believe that Syria’s chemical weapons have been moved beyond the initial incident of many, many weeks ago? And what concerns does this now pose in the equation? Does it raise a concern that Iranian Al-Quds inside Syria could also be getting their hands on chemical capability there?

SEC. PANETTA: First and foremost, as I’ve — as I’ve expressed, obviously we — we continue to have a concern about the security of the CBW sites, and we continue to monitor that. We’re working with — with the countries in the region to ensure that — that we have the best information possible with regards to the sites and how they’re being secured. At — at this stage, with regards to, you know, the major sites that we’re looking at, we do believe that those sites still remain secured by — by the Syrian military. There has been intelligence that there have been some moves that have taken place. Where exactly that’s taken place, we don’t know. I don’t have any specific information about the opposition and whether or not they’ve obtained some of this or how much they’ve obtained and just exactly what’s taken place.

But with regards to, you know, the movement of the — of some of this and whether or not they’ve been able to locate some of it, we just don’t know. The main point I would make, though, is that we still believe that, based on what we know and what we’re monitoring, that the principal sites that we are concerned about still remain secure.

Q: I’m sorry, sir, can I just ask you to clarify? You have for the first time, I think, are saying moves, multiple moves of chemical weapons. We knew of one incident many, many weeks ago. Can you elaborate? And you’re not talking about the main sites. So are you seeing things move? Just tell us what you mean.

SEC. PANETTA: What — what we mean is that there has been some intelligence that — that, with regards to some of these sites, that there has been some movement in order to — for the Syrian to better secure what they — the chemicals. And while there’s been some limited movement, again, the major sites still remain in place, still remain secure. But as to, you know, the movement of some of these — these materials and what, you know — whether or not they’ve been exposed to — to possession by — by the opposition or others, that’s something we — I — I really don’t have any firm information to confirm that that’s taken place.

Q: But if they’re still secure — that if — if you’re saying they’re secure —

SEC. PANETTA: The main sites — the main sites, as we’ve determined and monitored, still remain secure.

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...